On a bright cold lovely winter day in Monifieth, which has ended in a splendid sunset, I look at a luminous orange sky, and decide to begin a new series of blogs based on the Gospel passages in the revised lectionary. My focus will be whatever benefit may be found in living with a particular gospel passage for a week. On the Sunday of the week I will preach on the passage, but that is not the end of the study, for often the real meaning of a passage comes to me only after I’ve preached. So, I will note three stages of study: firstly, my initial survey of the passage; then the message prepared for the sermon; and finally my reconsideration after the Sunday.
MATTHEW 2: 1+12. THE FESTIVAL OF EPIPHANY A
Matthew wrote this Gospel around 85 CE, some 50 years after the ministry of Jesus. He used a number of written sources, namely the Gospel of Mark and a collection of Jesus’ Teaching also used by Luke. He also had some other sources, either written or oral, to do with Jesus’ birth and early years, and his resurrection. We can see from the way he handled Mark, that he used these sources with some freedom. I assume he had a source or sources for his story of the Magi, although it’s possible he built the story on the prophecy in Isaiah 60, “Gentiles shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising”
I think it is clear from the text that Matthew was not writing factual history, but rather a presentation of Jesus as Jewish Messiah and Son of God. There are factual elements in this presentation, along with poetry, imagination, theological narrative and prophecy. This passage is not factual, but rather imaginative theology designed to connect with spread of Christian faith amongst non-Jews of the time. By the time of the Gospel, the Jewish war with the Romans had ended, the population dispersed, the temple destroyed, and Christianity had become a gentile religion.
This passage is concerned to show that the spread of Jesus’ faith to Gentiles was not a kind of divine Plan B, but part of God’s intention for his Messiah from the start.
1. The Magi expect to find a, doubtless special, royal child, a political ruler to be. The prophecies in Jewish scripture were of a divinely appointed and inspired King. The Magi are not kings as subsequent tradition has it, but astrologers with scientific knowledge wedded to less scientific skills of prognostication. In pursuit of more direct knowledge, they make a serious journey to a foreign country. Matthew does not give reasons for this huge commitment, other than that they are guided by God. What they are seeking cannot be found by sitting still.
2. They naturally go to the capital city, asking their troublesome question, which gets them an interview in the place of power with the King, Herod. He was the puppet of the Roman Empire, but a considerable figure in his own right. The arrival of the visitors allowed him to discover the birth -place of the Messiah, and to seek co-operation with the Magi. This throws their expectation into confusion: there is no future king in the place of corrupt power and wealth.
3. They are guided on the pilgrimage by the star, that is by God, to find the child in an ordinary house in a poor village. (Matthew has nothing about a stable, shepherds, angels) The mother’s name is Mary which means “rebel”. Here is divine presence without power, wealth or religious prestige. Has their journey ended in failure or in the discovery of a profound mystery? They decide the latter, offer their gifts and depart, taking a shrewd political decision not to betray the child to Herod: they have taken sides. They are the ancestors of those gentiles who will “make their journey” to Jesus the Jewish Messiah rejected by his own people but received by ordinary people across the world.
MATTHEW 2:1-12 THE FESTIVAL OF EPIPHANY B
Assuming for the moment that my first look at the passage is right, the next issue is to ask how it connects with life in Scotland today or as traditional language would put it, with the souls of the congregation.
1,. For a start it may be good to remember the fact that we are the inheritors of a initially Jewish faith. There were a few gentiles reported in the gospels but the most significant were those who killed him. The first disciples, believers and missionaries were all Jewish. So it’s only due to the courage of Paul and Barnabas, the first to take the gospel of Jesus to Gentiles, that Christianity became a world faith, and we North Britons became Christian. The determination of people to share the joyful news beyond racial and cultural boundaries is of the essence of our faith. At times in the past we may have shared it arrogantly, for which we should be sorry, but a happy and humble sharing remains important.
2. The passage is about how God is to be found and where: not amongst the political or religious elite, but amongst ordinary poor vulnerable people anywhere, and only by those who make a journey to find the True Ruler.
3. There is an interesting parallel between Scotland and the Israel of Jesus’ time: both have their own government under the permission of a larger state, and both, perhaps, long for independence. Will the True Ruler be found amongst our Scottish political elite? Of course the future prime minister of the nation may be found there, but the one who demonstrates what true care and justice look like, the one who rules our souls and helps us hold our politicians to account, will not be amongst the elite. Jesus as always will be amongst the common people. If we seek him there, we will find him in them, as Martin Luther King did, as Desmond Tutu did, a great and effective mystery.
4. But we have to search. Just waiting in pious patience will not cut the mustard. We need not all make physical journeys, but even just sometimes being in places very near that we do not know well, may be what is asked of us. In any case the passage suggests that we need to move from our own comfort zone into new experiences as the small groups of Gentiles did in the first Christian assemblies. That does not mean that all churches should be centres of social activism. We are called to rediscover Jesus amongst ordinary people and to stand with him and them. The beginning of this wisdom is the desire for truth.